Review of Manufacturing Hysteria

The following book review appeared in this past Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. There are many faculty and students here at Wes interested in the problematic history of surveillance in our country. I’ll just mention here historian and American Studies professor Prof. Claire Potter’s original and important take on J. Edgar Hoover. You can find it on WesScholar:


Manufacturing Hysteria

A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America

By Jay Feldman

Manufacturing Hysteria offers a chilling overview of how American political culture has generated domestic enemies to justify massive infringements of rights. Jay Feldman begins with the World War I era and charts how the federal government (and often the states) developed bureaucracies of surveillance that often spilled into mob violence of the worst sort. He shows how the government “protected” democracy by systematically attacking those whose beliefs departed from official positions, thereby undermining the very political culture it was supposedly protecting.

What it means to be a patriot has changed over time, but Feldman sees how the urge to define “untainted Americanism” has persisted from the hysteria around German immigrants during the First World War to fears of a fifth column – be it made up of Russian Bolsheviks, Japanese saboteurs or Islamic terrorists. In 1919 the Washington Post applauded “serious cleaning up” of “bewhiskered, ranting, howling, mentally warped, law-defying aliens” and “international misfits,” and in subsequent generations we find parallel support for official, well-muscled efforts to make us feel safe by finding an internal enemy that can be attacked.

Feldman emphasizes two salient dimensions of this curious process of generating security by feeding paranoia. The first is that these efforts themselves violated the Constitution they claimed to be defending. Again and again, our elected officials (and the bureaucracy that shores up their power) have used extralegal means to pursue enemies. And they did so knowing they were violating the law or exceeding their authority. They often conjured up a sense of crisis to justify their actions, but Feldman does a good job of showing how their elaborate security designs were developed well before any emergencies actually occurred. These were well-planned efforts to ensure that future crises wouldn’t go to waste – that the government would be in a position to use them to increase political homogeneity.

The second dimension that Feldman emphasizes is that the insecurity was illusory, that the hysteria was “manufactured.” He does indicate, very briefly, that in times of prosperity, such as the 1920s, the propensity to create ideological or ethnic purity through violence is much reduced. But he does not examine how threats – such as the existence of a real world war or the work of spies who are really gathering information on behalf of a well-armed foreign power – might change security issues. Feldman notes that after hundreds of thousands of investigations of private citizens, there were few prosecutions, but he mistakenly concludes that this means that there never were any real security threats.

The communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy period are for Feldman the paradigm for America’s “neurotic nightmare.” He doesn’t see the relevance of the communist tyranny in Asia and Europe, a form of oppression willing to murder millions, and he is silent about the tactics of the American Communist Party – from its embrace of the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany to its willingness to accept the mother ship’s mass persecutions of dissidents. Instead, Feldman opines that it was communism’s “powerful critique of the social inequities of the capitalist system … that made the Communist Party so threatening to the established order.” But he gives no evidence at all that it was a “critique” J. Edgar Hoover was worried about.

And Hoover, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is at the heart of “Manufacturing Hysteria.” Hoover’s obsession with dissidents of all kinds, his reckless abuse of the Constitution, his power over lawmakers turned feelings of suspicion into policies of surveillance and control. The internment camps for Japanese Americans were just the tip of the iceberg; given the right conditions, Hoover was ready to round up millions. The FBI’s thousands of informants were in the field to discredit civil rights organizations and antinuclear groups – anyone who might depart from the narrow band of mainstream American life.

Alas, Feldman does not explore Hoover’s motivations, or why this man so desperate to conceal his own private life from scrutiny became a master of intruding into the lives of his fellow citizens. The author rarely digs beneath the political surface, and his focus remains stubbornly on conventional, mainstream American history. Do other republics (or political organizations) also create political scapegoats? Of course they do. How does the American example compare to the French, or the British? What about socialist countries and their manufacture of hysteria to shore up those with power? Unfortunately, one learns nothing in this book about how modern political regimes of various kinds are prone to the hysteria that has also infected the United States.

Feldman’s focus on American political elites is meant as a cautionary tale, and his epilogue describes how much worse things have become in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “Manufacturing Hysteria” is a political book, aimed at reminding those dedicated to civil liberties (especially the right to dissent) how fragile our freedoms are and how “close to a police state” we have come over the last century.

In his preface, Feldman writes: “Now, as ever, vigilance is required if liberty is to survive.” He does not seem to recognize that many of those whose “hysterical” actions he deplores could have written this very same sentence. We can be grateful for his account, while still being disappointed that he did not explore what drives officials here and in other countries to believe that in periods of great insecurity the rights of some should be sacrificed to protect their own particular version of freedom.

Productive Idealists

For many years I would tell friends that Wesleyan entered the 1960s well before the decade really started and continued in the sixties spirit decades after the official end of that turbulent time. I meant that Wes was already exploring uncharted, radical territory in the 1950s, and with Norman O. Brown, Carl Schorske on the faculty, along with the impact of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, there was a willingness to defy convention and explore new boundaries in culture and society. This was complemented by curricular innovations under Victor Butterfield, and especially with the university’s commitment to affirmative action and diversity long before other schools recognized their importance. When I was a student here in the mid-’70s this legacy was active and creative, with strong feminist and environmental movements that were exploring intellectual as well as political alternatives to the status quo.

It is easy to treat these trends with irony or cynicism. Were they romantic and idealist? Sure they were, and that was part of their ability to inspire many to go beyond what had been expected of them. Recently, I was asked to review a new book that trashed both the spirit and the accomplishments of that time, Gerald DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged. Although the author has an easy time of showing how much of the romantic rhetoric of the day was not in accord with what was really happening, his book makes no effort at understanding why people were in fact committed to political and cultural change, to social justice. You can read my San Francisco Chronicle book review at:

At Wesleyan today it is worth trying to understand the value of idealism and the productive role of imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. When I spoke with prospective students and their parents this weekend, I emphasized how Wesleyan students become innovators, intelligent risk takers whose ideals are cultivated rather than punctured by the education they receive. At a time in our history when technological and cultural change will continue to accelerate, we need people who can continue to learn, to adapt and to become leaders of innovation. We need the courageous creativity of Wesleyan grads in the sciences, arts, business world, education and politics. And we need those grads to remember their commitment to justice even when those around them seem to have forgotten the victims of change. Wesleyan graduates have long been productive idealists, and they will continue to play that role in the future.

Having seen the small but vocal rally for Wesleyan’s physical plant employees this weekend, I can well imagine some reading this thinking: “Well, Roth, if you are so concerned about justice, why don’t your physical plant employees have a contract?” We continue to negotiate with the union representing these employees, but it has been a frustratingly slow process. Nevertheless, we compromised on our initial proposals many times and reached an agreement with the union representative and the union’s bargaining committee more than a week ago when Wesleyan accepted the offer made by the union. To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made! We are back at the negotiating table, but it is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the physical plant employees to agree with their own representatives. It is hard to miss the irony of physical plant employees having extra work to do as they clean up the scrawled messages of their student supporters.

Let me be clear: We are and have been negotiating in good faith throughout the bargaining process, and I am committed to see that those who work for Wesleyan are fairly compensated for the good jobs they do. I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement.

On a lighter note, when Sophie saw “contract now!” scrawled on our driveway, she thought we were suddenly to become smaller…

[tags]1960s, Norman C. Brown, Carl Schorske, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Victor Butterfield, Gerald DeGroot, The Sixties Unplugged, San Francisco Chronicle, book review, productive idealists, physical plant, contract, negotiations[/tags]